Balotelli's cameo shows he's still loved
Manchester City 3 Watford 0: Ifpictures speak louder than words, as Manchester City and their easily accessible training ground keep finding out, it is also true that bad news travels round the world faster than good.
Roberto Mancini did his best to suggest there was no rift or ill-feeling between Mario Balotelli and Scott Sinclair by using the pair as late substitutes in the comfortable FA Cup win over Watford, but the photograph that could theoretically undo all the negative publicity of the previous week was of three smiling Italians.
When Balotelli took the field he shared a joke with Gianfranco Zola, as Mancini looked on approvingly. The Watford manager even went on to publicly stick up for Balotelli, claiming his obvious potential made him worth all the trouble, and admitting he retains an affection for the sometimes wayward striker from briefly working with him within Italy’s Under-21 set up.
Out on a limb
If Zola feels that way then clearly Mancini is not as far out on a limb with Balotelli as it has become usual to suggest. The universally popular former Chelsea striker has few enemies in the game and no axes to grind, so when he praises Balotelli it ought to encourage others to give him the benefit of the doubt.
“I just hope he is able to shine, to do what he is capable of doing,” Zola said. “He caused us problems as soon as he came on. You can see all the potential he has, he just needs to make sure he masters all that potential. I care about him and hope he pulls through everything.”
Balotelli’s major contribution to helping pull City through to the fourth round lay in producing a shot in stoppage time that Jonathan Bond could only parry, allowing the 17-year-old debutant Marcos Lopes to score the third goal of the afternoon after being on the pitch for five minutes. Zola felt that gave the scoreline a flattering gloss that City did not really deserve, though Watford were never all that competitive.
The home side were able to see out a dull second half on economy setting after scoring two goals in the first period to settle the tie. Carlos Tevez’s unstoppable free-kick midway through the first half was followed by a Gareth Barry header on the stroke of the interval.
Zola was on firmer ground in acknowledging that Watford could have made more of a game of it by taking their chances. In a game where City enjoyed by far the most possession and spent long periods laying siege to the Watford goalmouth, the Championship side managed to create and miss the two clearest opportunities.
Immediately after going behind Fernando Forestieri sprang City’s offside trap but lacked the confidence to beat Costel Pantilimon, and when Troy Deeney did the same thing at the start of the second half a heavy touch made a present of the ball to the goalkeeper.
Without the hamstring victim Sergio Aguero, City’s finishing was not great either. Edin Dzeko had a quiet game before making way for Balotelli, who in turn missed a good chance set up by David Silva. With a goal to his name after a mere five minutes of professional football, club historians believe Lopes could be one of City’s youngest ever scorers.